If you follow Abbe Road far enough south, they call it “Elyria Road”. Past Route 30, the Wooster –Mansfield parallel, where it becomes a twisty turny farm path through the peat bogs and past the Amish farms, to a spot where all the waters collect. It’s a place called Funk Bottoms Wildlife Area; maybe the worst name for a park, ever. On a cloudy March morning before 8AM I gather with a few dedicated bird watchers to seek out a fellow called Jason Tucker in this flooded, chilly marsh. He’s a graduate student at Ohio State University doing research on one particular species, the Sand Hill Cranes. Jason told me, “When my advisor approached me about doing (a study on) the Sand Hills, I didn’t even know we had cranes in Ohio.” He says there hadn’t been a student with this special area of study in ten years when he took the job on.
Sand Hill Cranes from our area migrate to Florida or Tennessee but not all of them migrate, some simply “hunker down for the winter “as Jason puts it. Some of the birds he tagged with radio transmitters were found by a biologist in Northern Indiana who was looking for other bird species when he heard an unfamiliar signal on his headphones.
In one case he tracked a dead crane by GPS satellite beacon. A necropsy revealed“heavy predation”, but the carcass wasn’t devoured. Translation; the crane was attacked (probably by a coyote says Tucker) but the animal wasn’t immediately killed and managed to go off somewhere else and die.
He’s has successfully tracked 6 mated pairs in migration by satellite. Two other birds he tracked were not mated, noting sometimes birds go a couple of years and “just haven’t gotten the hang of it yet.” But once they do mate, Sand Hills stay in mated pairs for life, like other cranes.
To capture and tag a Sand Hill is a tricky proposition.His team had to set up in the shadow of an oil well under camouflage netting, several hundred yards out in the marshy swamp of Funk Bottoms. Quietly, patiently they wait until the Sand Hills are close, and then approach them very slowly. “Once I stood up just a little and the whole flock took off. I just barely stuck my head out and they were gone. It’s easy to get busted, they’re very aware of their surroundings, very alert.”
This is one of the reasons waterfowl hunters sometimes employ crane or heron decoys when hunting ducks and geese. The ducks know how wary cranes are, and assume that where a crane is at rest, all must be safe there.
I told Jason of our Sand Hill pair at Sandy Ridge Reservation, and he was unaware of them. He says it’s really unusual to have Sand Hills allow you to get so close, but because of the steady human presence and foot traffic on the path so close to the water, the have become accustomed to people (“Habituated” is the word scientists use) and are less wary then the population he has studied at Funk Bottoms.
Hetold me Sand Hills don’t mind other bird species much and will often intermix with a flock of black ducks or Canada Geese. Although they are neighbors to other great birds like the owl and the wild turkey, they don’t often come in contact with them and therefore don’t compete with them for territory or resources. “Sand Hills stick mostly to the water or the water’s edge in our area. In Florida, they often come right up into people’s back yards and parks” where neighborhoods are near the water.
In fact, in all his time communing with the cranes and conducting research, he has found them generally unapproachable. Jasonsays the birds often become accustomed to vehicles to the point where you can drive close to them, “But once you step out of the car they immediately regard you as a threat and they’re gone.” He says in some places they even get accustomed to the sights and sounds of ATV’s, but the majority of the animal kingdom recognizes the sight of a man on foot as a threat.
So how does a Sand Hill survive in Ohio when it decides not to migrate, what does it eat? It’s a struggle of slim subsistence for sure according to Tucker. With the warming and cooling cycles we’ve had in recent winters though it’s been much easier than years with a long deep freeze. “They’re able to get down into the mud and get under vegetation and leaf cover (around the shore). Grubs are a major food source for them at this time of year, along with left over grains in planted farm fields, and whatever little aquatic life they can get (through the winter).”
If you haven’t seen our Sand Hill Cranes, I encourage you to get to Sandy Ridge Metroparks Reservation in North Ridgeville. Bring your binoculars, your camera, and your walking shoes, and don’t forget to dress for the weather. Get outdoors!